Bradford One: Reclaiming A City Centre With People Power?

Bradford city centre already has one famous giant hole. With developers wanting to create another one demolishing the iconic art deco Odeon, the people of Bradford have said, finally, enough is enough.
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Bradford city centre already has one famous giant hole. With developers wanting to create another one demolishing the iconic art deco Odeon, the people of Bradford have said, finally, enough is enough.

Bradford Odeon in its 1930s heyday and now hidden under wraps

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There are 60-or-so guests gathered in the clean white space of the Impressions Gallery in Centenary Square, Bradford. Councillors, civil servants, developers and architects are sitting and standing alongside members of the public: local business owners, artists, families and community groups.

Some have come wearing suits and ties, others Docs and anoraks. For the first time in ten years, some of the people in this room are gathered together without the threat of a row. Despite a palpable excitement, nobody seems to know quite what the etiquette is now. It’s a strange kind of awkward goodwill that seems too good to be true.

And to compound the bewilderment and joy, Griff Rhys Jones is here bearing good news.

This is the launch Bradford One, the community bid for the newly-rescued Bradford Odeon, formerly the New Victoria, a distinctive twin-domed 1930s supercinema which can be seen from the windows of the gallery, towering over the new City Park. Almost everything in view from this window has been built in the 12 years since the Odeon closed, including this window.

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The Odeon has - for the past ten years - been a cert for demolition to be replaced with a glass office, hotel and apartment block. Bradford was not happy, and refused to let it lie. Objection from the public has been ongoing, vocal, imaginative and despairing, calling this a symbol of many things: regeneration failure, a lack of transparency, commerce over culture, and of giving up on Bradford.

But, over the past few years, one-by-one the partners in this proposed replacement disappeared before demolition could happen, leaving just developers Langtree. Finding themselves in an old contract with new owners the Homes and Communities Agency, Langtree faffed around with signing the final documents until the HCA lost patience and terminated the contract altogether. Victoria had seen them all off.

After years of dragging out the seemingly inevitable, the headlines that day were a shock. We all knew the agreement was in trouble, but lessons from the past taught us not to be too optimistic. Credit, then, to the many people who carried on producing artwork, coming to demonstrations, writing blogs, signing petitions and watching over the building regardless.

Civic pride is not something we’ve traditionally had much of here in Bradford, thanks to being forever associated with discord and disadvantage. But the tide has begun to turn

Griff is here to celebrate Bradford people’s dedication in his capacity as president of Civic Voice, an organisation promoting civic pride. Civic pride is not something we’ve traditionally had much of here in Bradford, thanks to being forever associated with discord and disadvantage. But the tide has begun to turn over the past year or so, through a combination of the City Park opening, the city’s refusal to be roused during the EDL’s big visit or the UK riots, and the blooming of an independent, DIY collaborative culture. The Make Bradford British program on Channel 4 seemed to be the last straw for people who didn’t recognise these portrayals of their home, friends and family. Several independent websites, magazines, blogs and Twitter accounts sprang up at once to promote Bradford from within: HowDo?! Magazine, Buzz Bradford, Hidden Bradford, The Local Leader, No Hands, Bradfordia and Bradford Hour to name just a few.

The latest wave of the Odeon campaign sprang from this backlash. With so much energy and cooperation around the public campaign to save the building, it was only natural to wonder what the solution would be if she were suddenly granted a reprieve. What would we want, after all this shouting?

With the new Localism Act coming into force this autumn, campaigners realised this could give people the chance to have the building asset transferred to a properly established community group, to make sure that whatever happened, it would always have the community as a landlord and decisions would never be taken without us again. It would involve a co-operative structure, which is a powerful thing for Bradford to be able to demonstrate in the wake of allegations of deep-rooted segregation, something we haven’t seen at all through this campaign.

So when the agreement with Langtree collapsed we were ready, more or less, to start that process, and Bradford One was formed as a group to constitute and bid for the building. Whether we’ll get it, we don’t know, but we know we have to give it our best shot, because if there isn’t at least one viable plan on the table then everyone’s efforts have been for nothing.

Although the word ‘community’ has its own connotations, this isn’t a bid for some massive community centre for the weaving of yogurt

The ten-or-so founder members - a combination of campaigners and local people with specific expertise - would be an acting board until the first AGM, when the first board would be elected. And the plans Bradford One have to develop for the building - vague though they are right now - are based on the holy trinity of what people have been asking for, what fits in with the long-term regeneration plan for the city centre, and what is viable and self-sustaining. It has to include a venue for live performance, which we’re lacking right now. It has to have surrounding businesses which both support the building and fulfill a cultural need. Beyond that, it’s up to the city, and the feasibility study, to decide.

The Council would be heavily involved, without a drain on local budgets, with the initial finance being a combination of a community share issue, traditional debt finance, and grant funding available to demonstrate that the Localism Act and the notion of assets being run by and for the community can work.

Although the word ‘community’ has its own connotations, this isn’t a bid for some massive community centre for the weaving of yogurt. Private developers and professional management can go hand-in-hand with the community. As Griff Rhys Jones reminds the gathered guests and press, one community centre he fought to save is the Hackney Empire, and that’s more befitting of Bradford’s aspirations now.

For more information, visit www.bradfordone.com